The Upaniṣad, translated by Juan Mascaró and others

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[Online Editor: My comments and questions appear in pale yellow.]


Kena Upaniṣad

Who Moves the World?


Kena 1:1Who sends the mind to wander afar?  Who first drives life to start on its journey?  Who impels us to utter these words?  Who is the Spirit behind the eye and the ear?
Does the third sentence mean to imply that there is such a thing as fate, and no free will?
Kena 1:2It is the ear of the ear, the eye of the eye, and the Word of words, the mind of mind, and the life of life.  Those who follow wisdom pass beyond and, on leaving this world, become immortal.

Why would wisdom lead to one’s immortality?  It seems to me that wisdom will lead simply to inner peace.

What is wisdom?  [NOTE TO SELF: Add comments about wisdom.]

Kena 1:3There the eye goes not, nor words, nor mind.  We know not, we cannot understand, how he can be explained:  He is above the known and he is above the unknown.  Thus have we heard from the ancient sages who explained this truth to us.
Kena 1:4What cannot be spoken with words, but that whereby words are spoken:  Know that alone to be Brahman, the Spirit; and not what people here adore.
Kena 1:5What cannot be thought with the mind, but that whereby the mind can think:  Know that alone to be Brahman, the Spirit; and not what people here adore.
Kena 1:6What cannot be seen with the eye, but that whereby the eye can see:  Know that alone to be Brahman, the Spirit; and not what people here adore.
Kena 1:7What cannot be heard with the ear, but that whereby the ear can hear:  Know that alone to be Brahman, the Spirit; and not what people here adore.
Kena 1:8What cannot be indrawn with breath, but that whereby breath is indrawn:  Know that alone to be Brahman, the Spirit; and not what people here adore.


Kena 2:1Master.  If you think ‘I know well’, little truth you know.  You only perceive that appearance of Brahman that lies in the senses and is in you.  Pursue your mediation.

It seems strange that this ought to be the case.  Is it necessarily so that the only people that have any real perception of spiritual truth are those who perceive themselves to have little or none?  Considering that I am agnostic, and that I hold that I am not wise enough to know whether or not there is a God, this text would seem to conclude that I am closer to the truth than most, including presumably this text’s own author, who clearly seems to believe that she or he knows something, lest she or he would not have put pen to paper.

Maybe I cannot be said to be approaching this supposed truth on the grounds that I do have a certain belief, viz. the belief that I am not wise enough.  Perhaps this belief itself makes me too presumptuous to know.  But be this the case, the inherent strangeness of this view is not resolved.

For, if this is true, then the only people who ever do reach the truth reach it without knowing it to be the truth, without realising that they had attained their goal.  So why would anyone ever pursue mediation?

Further, what if one thinks, having read this, “I know I do not know well because I perceive that I know well”?  Could not such a person then know well because her or his belief that her or his perception is deceptive is itself deceptive?

Finally, who wrote this?  What would this author say to the question, “How much do you know?”  If this person responds by saying “a great deal,” I would have to say, “By your own logic, you do not.”  Conversely, if this person were to say “little to nothing,” I would then be compelled to ask her or him why I should take her or his advice, follow her or his way of living, adopt her or his faith.

Kena 2:2Disciple.  I mean to know.
Kena 2:3I do not imagine ‘I know him well’, and yet I cannot say ‘I know him not’.  Who of us knows this, knows him; and not who says ‘I know him not’.
And what of us who say ‘I know not whether I know him well, little, or at all’?
Kena 2:4He comes to the thought of those who know him beyond thought, not to those who imagine he can be attained by thought.  He is unknown to the learned and known to the simple.

This seems to be a call for ignorance and against intellectual investigation.  Do not bother trying, this tells us, to learn.  But why, then, meditate?  Why even write these words, which can do nothing but inspire a desire to know more?

I fear this amounts to “Ignorance is strength,” which I have no guilt rejecting.

Kena 2:5He is known in the ecstasy of an awakening which opens the door of life eternal.  By the Self we obtain power, and by vision we obtain Eternity.
Kena 2:6For a man who has known him, the light of truth shines; for one who has not known, there is darkness.  The wise who have seen him in every being, on leaving this life, attain life immortal.
How?  Why?


Kena 3:1Once upon a time, Brahman, the Spirit Supreme, won a victory for the gods.  And the gods thought in their pride: ‘We alone attained this victory, ours alone is the glory.’
Kena 3:2Brahman saw it and appeared to them, but they knew him not.  ‘Who is that being that fills us with wonder?’ they cried.
Was this their first-ever encounter with Brahman?  Or were they aware of His existence prior to their encounter?
Kena 3:3And they spoke to Agni, the god of fire: ‘O god all-knowing, go and see who is that being that fills us with wonder.’
Is Agni the only all-knowing one?  Why would the god of fire have some special omniscience?  If the god is omnicient, did he not know of Brahman prior, or that Brahman would approach the gods, or that Agni himself would be approached with this request to “go and see”?
Kena 3:4Agni ran towards him and Brahman asked: ‘Who are you?’  ‘I am the god of fire,’ he said, ‘the god who knows all things.’
Did Brahman not know the answer to this question?  Surely if Brahman is akin to the Everything of Everything, including thought, He would know the answer to this question; surely he, too, would be omniscient.
Kena 3:5‘What power is in you?’ asked Brahman.  ‘I can burn all things on earth.’
Kena 3:6And Brahman placed a straw before him, saying: ‘Burn this.’  The god of fire strove with all his power, but was unable to burn it.  He then returned to the other gods and said: ‘I could not find out who was that being that fills us woth wonder.’
Then the god of fire is not omniscent.  He also seems to lack a certain skill: asking people simple questions, e.g., “So…who are you?”
Kena 3:7Then they spoke to Vayu, the god of air.  ‘O Vayu, go and see who is that being that fills us with wonder.’
Kena 3:8Vayu ran toward him and Brahman asked: ‘Who are you?’  ‘I am Vayu, the god of the air,’ he said, ‘Matarisvan, the air that moves in space.’
Kena 3:9‘What power is in you?’ asked Brahman.  ‘In a whirlwind I can carry away all there is on earth.’
Kena 3:10And Bragman placed a straw before him saying: ‘Blow this away.’  The god of air strove with all his power, but was unable to move it.  He returned to the other gods and said: ‘I could not find out who was that being that fills us with wonder.’
Kena 3:11Then the gods spoke to Indra, the god of thunder: ‘O giver of earthly goods, go and see who is that being that fills us with wonder.’  And Indra ran towards Brahman, the Spirit Supreme, but he disappeared.
Kena 3:12Then in the same region of the sky the god saw a lady of radient beauty.  She was Uma, divine wisdom, the daughter of the mountains of snow.  ‘Who is that being that fills us with wonder?’ he asked.
How do we know any of this happened?  Or is this supposed to be a description of Brahman’s power and supremacy, rather than a dictation of actual events?


Kena 4:1‘He is Brahman, the Spirit Supreme,’ she answered.  ‘Rejoice in him, since through him you attained the glory of victory.’
How does one rejoice in Brahman?  How does Uma know who He is, or that it was through Him that the gods attained victory?  How is it that Uma is divine wisdom?
Kena 4:2And the gods Agni, Vayu and Indra excelled the other gods, for they were the first that came near Brahman and they first knew he was the Supreme Spirit.
Was not Uma the first to know?  Or, more appropriately, was not Brahman Himself the first to know?  Are not all the gods at all times equally near and equally far from Brahman, and is not Brahman everywhere (and nowhere)?
Kena 4:3And thus Indra, the god of thunder, excelled all other gods, for he came nearest to Brahman and he first knew that he was the Spirit Supreme.
Kena 4:4Concerning whom it is said:
Kena 4:5He is seen in Nature in the wonder of a flash of lightning.
Kena 4:6He comes to the soul in the wonder of a flash of vision.
Kena 4:7His name is Tadvanam, which translated means ‘the End of love-longing’.  As Tadvanam he should have adoration.  All beings will love such a lover of the Lord.
Kena 4:8Master.  You asked me to explain the Upanishad, the sacred wisdom.  The Upanishad has been explained to you.  In truth I have been telling you the sacred teaching concerning Brahman.
How can you be sure?

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